Design and Ethics

December 2, 2001 Enron declared bankruptcy tumbling from its peak net worth of about 70 billion dollars.  The ensuing scandal was only ushering what would be a decade of big business, financial and ethical blunderings in our news.  The housing market peaking somewhere in 2006 was a symptom of some of that same corporate and personal greed.  Places like California boasted over half of its new loans as interest only.  These same loans that were getting AAA ratings, were then being gobbled up by “safe investors” like overseas interests and retirement investment funds. The fall out was marked by much more then just the worst housing crash in U.S. history.  September 26, 2008 marked the biggest bank failure in U.S. history.  By the end of that same year over three million foreclosures had taken place.

When the housing credit froze in the summer of 2007 we watched as things deteriorated rapidly.  My firm functioned primarily as a residential design build organization and with little to no diversification in longer-term commercial projects or maintenance we immediately began to feel the effects.  In the fall of ’07, and after over a decade of business, I had a customer say, “yes, I owe you $30,000 but I can’t get a loan and I don’t have the money.”  No matter if you ran a good business or not the impact of the financial environment was effecting you.  My company, and many like mine, started to make massive cutbacks.  Employees were let go, systems were changed and a new paradigm was a foot.  I watched as many well respected companies slipped under. Landscape design is a luxury for most people and our little company closed almost 20% down in both ’07 and ‘08.  We had a strong loyal customer base and found ourselves lucky in a region much less affected then many.  We pressed on learning from the experience.  However much of our industry, so connected to housing, continued to reel in the economic struggle.

While our industry asked these questions (of what, why, or how) big business was doing the same.  The result was a great deal of talk about business ethics.  Many of these businesses that failed did so because they were betting on risky investments with other peoples monies and making their portfolios look good at the surface while hiding millions of mistakes and financial delinquencies behind corporate curtains.  CEO’s were walking away with ungodly amounts of money while a struggling work force watched their meager retirement disappear.  Business innovation was being exercised in lieu of the impact on others.

I personally have struggled with this topic of ethics and business most specifically as it relates to landscape design.  Our industry is mostly made up of small businesses with a personal touch on employees and customers.  We build our businesses and reputation on relationships and more often then not find ourselves far outside the reaches of big business ethics.  We are lovers of the land and environment and not only have the love for nature in our blood but are realistic about nature being our lively hood.  After the fall out of one of the biggest business blunders in history how do we as an industry react?  In a trade where ethics can be usurped by quality relationships does ethics apply?  What is business ethics?  How do I share something so tacit with my students or you with your employees?  I teach landscape design at Andrews University and it wasn’t until through a purposeful journey in thought and reading that I come to some personal conclusions about these relationships. 

John Maxwell wrote a book entitled There’s No Such Thing As “Business” Ethics.  His philosophy is that there is only personal ethics and people run businesses accordingly.  He eludes that the market crash, that impacted our industries bottom line, wasn’t because corporations were corrupt but because corporate leaders were.  And, that it was the personal ethics leading those companies that created the fall and nothing else.  That philosophy, removing the corporation from the equation, puts all of us individually on the line.  Designers, in big companies or small, are forced to take an ethical introspection.  Maxwell, and many others, offer a simplification for an ethical guide, as we still need to define what ethics is.  Such a personal consideration comes wrought with complications and differences of opinions.  One rule does seem to cross many bridges however.  The golden rule, it’s  like the perfect mousetrap.  It is simple, concise and it covers most or possibly all ethical situations.  Nearly every religion and society dating back to the pre-written history of Egypt has a version.  The history, depth and universal cover of this rule is fascinating.  And, as with its simple nature it easily applies to us as designers.  How?

Our interaction through the design process is littered with ethical dilemmas.  It may be one of the only places in our trade that decisions, guidance and art interact ethically.  Sure we still need to treat our employees well and nature with respect.  But, many of us are interacting with clients who are not only spending tens or 100’s of thousands of dollars, but they are doing so to impact their home.  Their personal spaces where they find solace, comfort and will likely raise or nurture a family.  We aren’t just being invited into this extremely personal space as a guest but something greater, we are asked in to creating change, to improve.  This doesn’t come with so light a notion.  If we are doing our job we are also being asked in as experts and professionals.  We are the liaison between a soul who hasn’t the ability to create and beauty.  We are tasked as representatives to bring comfort to a home.  And, the client is hiring us as their professional representative to provide them with the best personal advice and direction we can with only their consideration and site in mind.

We are also a business with many of us on commission or acting as small owner operators.  Your job is also to feed your family, keep your bosses happy and many times to provide jobs to others.  As installers we may have wall units that we like to use because are crews are familiar with them making our margins greater.  As designers we may have favorite plants that we feel mark our brand as an artist, art that reflects on us as professionals, our trade and art that will produce future work.  We walk into initial client meetings not just as customer advocates but as sales people touting our wares.  And that creates a deep ethical dilemma.  How are we as an industry dealing with such a critical interaction?

I’ve been working on some research with the design process and teaching the client interview in class.  I’ve come to notice a trend.  Architects and designers are often labeled as creating monuments to self.  Landscape designers specifically straddle between planties, contractors and artists.  All though the customer is what provides this honor of creating, with their checkbooks, very little attention is given to their needs.  All our current college texts that cover the design process give at best a limited training of client interaction.  And, none of them take the time in print to really dig in to the feelings behind the program or the importance of the client.  Seldom did my staff meetings incorporate true client needs.  What do our clients really feel about the landscape and their home?  Not just color choices and patio samples but deeper more personal questioning.  Where do they come from?  What makes them comfortable in a space and why?  How does that impact my design, and as designers where are our priorities and how do we create that balance between designer, physiologist and income producer?

From the smoke of that collision rises ethics in our industry.  We have an ethical responsibility to our clients wants and needs above our own.  If the golden rule, or something like it, were our guide we as the client would expect at the least that respect in return.  I would even take it one step further.  Ethics as designers is communication.  However, it’s more then listening to a client, but being responsible to pull out and decipher the unspoken and patiently willing to find the “meaning behind the meaning”.  Design ethics is taking the extra time and asking the extra questions with the client in mind above the bottom line.  If a design goes in poorly or the client springs “new needs” on us halfway through the process it’s our fault, as we are hired as the experts and we are expected to be the professionals in the relationship.

The banking industry is now living with an ugly stigma.  Contractors have lived in a cloud of distrust from the day I first stepped foot on a job, designers live with a label of arrogant artists and at times are seen more as sales people coming to woo.  Do we want to live with these labels?  If we turned the tide where landscape designers were seen as advocates for customers, who were to be readily trusted, how much easier would it be to do our job and to simply create?  How much more respect would we have for our trade and ourselves?  If we were our customers how much better would we feel knowing that the number one goal of the relationship was beauty for us in spite of convince, in spite of money.